Elon Musk has been called just about every flattering name in the book, from "visionary investor" to "genius" to "the modern-day Tony Stark." One hopeful author even called him "our best hope yet for moving beyond fossil fuels." He's a Silicon Valley superstar and has one of the greatest rags-to-riches stories you can read.
Not all of Musk's investments always pan out flawlessly — one of his most famous brands, Tesla Motors, Inc. (NASDAQ: TSLA), dropped 35% between Jan. 1, 2016 and Feb. 15, 2016, and the highly touted SolarCity (NASDAQ: SCTY) has suffered big losses. Low gas prices are terrorizing the alternative energy industry, an area in which Musk devotes a great deal of capital.
But you don't build a reputation as a visionary without some big-time wins, and Musk has plenty of those. An abbreviated list of Musk's best investments includes PayPal Holdings, Inc. (NASDAQ: PYPL), SpaceX, DeepMind (NASDAQ: GOOGL), Zip2 Corporation and Tesla.
A short list of PayPal's investors and executives reads like a who's who list of the modern tech industry. The popular online payment system was co-founded by, among others, Ken Howery, Max Levchin, Peter Thiel and Musk. John Donahoe, who also works on the boards of eBay and Intel, serves as chairman for PayPal.
Musk no longer holds a stake in PYPL, having exited his position after eBay purchased the company for $1.5 billion worth of stock in 2002 — something Carl Icahn helped undo more than a decade later. Musk reportedly earned between $165 million and $175 million for his part — not a bad return on the $10 million Musk used to co-found X.com, the precursor to PayPal.
As he's done with the proceeds from prior corporate acquisitions, Musk used most of his PayPal fortune to found Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, more commonly known as SpaceX. By most accounts, Musk sank $100+ million to get SpaceX off the ground in 2002.
The company has been a remarkable success, both financially and technologically. NASA awarded SpaceX with a lucrative contract in 2006. It launched Falcon 1, the first-ever private liquid-propellant rocket to reach orbit, in 2008. Two years later the Dragon spacecraft actually reached the International Space Station (ISS). In 2011, NASA granted SpaceX a second contract to help shuttle crew between the ISS and Earth.
As a private company, SpaceX is more difficult to value than PayPal. However, a January 2015 round of private financing put the company's worth north of $12 billion. Musk still owns a controlling interest, which means his share is worth far more than the $100 million he originally invested. Expect Musk to earn a huge sum if SpaceX is ever taken public.
Musk famously dropped out of graduate school at Stanford University to follow a career in technology entrepreneurship. His first company, Zip2 Corporation, was an online directory for newspapers and other media. Eventually, Musk added a feature that created the first online Yellow Pages. Within four years, Musk sold Zip2 to Compaq for more than $300 million. Musk immediately used $10 million of his new fortune to create X.com.
Musk struck buyout gold again with his artificial intelligence company DeepMind Technologies. The company launched in late 2010 with Musk as one of the key angel investors. The company would eventually sell to Google for an unconfirmed amount, but most reports put the value between $400 and $600 million.
Musk was not a founding member of the Tesla team, but he did lead an early round of financing in 2004. After a very disappointing run up through 2008, Musk went from board member to CEO, even though he still served as CEO of SpaceX. Since that time, Tesla went public and saw its stock appreciate from just $19 per share in June 2010 to a high of $280 per share in July 2015. Despite recent weakness and an uncertain appetite from global consumers, Tesla remains one of Musk's most important victories.